What does the world think of Seville? Narrow, winding, cobbled streets with cast-iron gates, geraniums and studded wooden doors the height of horse and rider offering shutter-fast views of tiled, jungle-like patios with their rough pillars and ancient Al-Andalus fountains; picturesque pocket-sized plazas enclosed between blinding white-washed houses, with gazebos, jasmine-trellises, wrought iron crosses and, as dusk begins to ponder its arrival, the sound of the flamenco guitar breaking the early-evening silence, accompanied by the agony contained and modulated in the voice of the singer; no other sounds, not even street dogs, apart from the rasping quiver of the heat. Proud, raven-haired women hanging out washing, with baskets balanced on their swinging hips, haughty chins thrust upwards, breasts imitating their chins. Deep, throaty, consonant-free voices as they shout to each other and pass on the news of Rocío’s pending wedding to Jacinto, speculating as to how she knows he’s such a man. Horses pulling shiny traps along the walkways and orange tree-lined avenues, hooves slipping on the cobbles, passing the cigarette factory as the girls pour out onto the street, eying the greased-back-haired, wiry, tanned young men. Sweat, cigarettes, horse dung and orange blossom, the Guadalquivir and Triana, the Torre del Oro and the Giralda, cathedral bells and Christmas carols played out on anis bottles, the echo of high heels, the whisper of nuns.
Oh it’s all here – apart from Carmen and her sassy friends. But it’s a tiny part. Seville sprawls lazily without so much as a heave or a sigh from the Guadalquivir River to Alcala, where it changes name and encounters the Guadaira. It is penned in by the six-laned ringroad and outlying once-independent-now-swallowed-up townships. The outskirts of the city are the Badlands, the seemingly half-built, green-free, low-ceiling state housing where the undesirables, the less-than-pretty were sent to keep them from the sensitive eyes of the People with Surnames. Many people were re-housed here after parts of the centre were flooded in the early 1960s, yet the inner ringroad which separates these downbeat ‘barriadas’ from ‘civilisation’ is built on top of a river which floods into these housing complexes, filling the washing-adorned, pokey homes with water and sludge, yellow sand and rubbish. Out of sight. Here, the young people are heavily laden with local bling, chains enslaving the backs of hands, gold medals honouring saints and virgins, the boys bowing to the altar of Reebok and Nike, the girls to the goddesses Lycra and Thong. Pierced eyebrows, peroxide bleached crests, the girls competing for the longest locks in town, mane scraped back into a ponytail, ears decorated with yet more gold and coral. Voices abused, worn out at 15, the sandpapered, bellowing tones of youth. Mopeds and step-throughs, pushbikes or quads, neither pilot not pillion wanting to spoil their hair.
Los Remedios, faceless, red-brick, four-storeys-hiding-shared-swimming-pool-and-gardens-district nestling next to the river between Triana and the Feria, the area reserved for the annual April Fair. The women gym-toned, nipped and tucked, bejewelled, blonde. The Audis and BMWs, family-sized Peugeots or sleek, sporty Volvos either housed in garages or preening in the street. Tomy Hilfiger, Purificación García, shoe collections, leather and fabric bracelets proud with the Spanish colours, the children slouching elegantly in the Wealthy Surfer look with pearls in their ears or polo shirt in pastel shades. These sun-bleached straw-haired enfants entirely unterribles are the paunchy, caseta-owning, cufflink-wearing, flop-haired lawyers, company directors and civil engineers of tomorrow. The voices rasp but more quietly, the laughter is more guttural, less ear-splitting. The struggle to make it to the end of the month the same.
The area around the Alfalfa and the Alameda is the area where foreigners are gradually edging out the artists, intellectuals and bohemians. The poets, performance artists, dance-teachers, architects, painters and character actors are being swamped by a deluge of overseas students, English (American, Australian, Scottish, Irish, Welsh….), French and German teachers, the occasional foreign journalist, and editorial staff from colder climes. The families who have been there for seven generations still hold their ground, though, and can be seen in the evenings, standing with glass of wine held aloft, over plates of shrimp fritters or ‘hortiguillas’, deep-fried sea anemones (oh, sheer, utter, gastronomic ecstasy!), in the Barbiana or the bottle-festooned half of the Morales. Ham, white prawns, the wines brought up from Sanlúcar and down from La Rioja, the men dressed down for the evening in shirts, pale beige jeans, webbing or plaited belts, sockless loafers, the hair stuck back with large amounts of gel, the sideburns clipped to exactly the right length just below the mid-point of the ear. The women are somewhere else, where is not clear, perhaps still shoe-shopping, perhaps enjoying similar fare at a chic pavement café. Elsewhere.
And there are barrios like mine, inhabited by cousins, uncles, aunts, sisters-in-law, everyone is related to at least half the barrio, by marriage and by blood, but any outsiders willing to do The Local Thing will be welcomed, adopted, invited to share the family table on Christmas Eve. People say Hello on the streets, the children play together outside and annoy the snootier neighbours not originally from around here. Everyone joins in at Easter and in May, everyone is on first-name terms, Mr and Mrs Surname are banished to other parts, along with ambition. Life hasn’t changed much in several generations, they have more food than fifty years ago, the mobile phones are – oh- twentieth generation and the plasma TVs are as a big as a pool table, but essentially they eat the same, they run the business their grandparents set up, they married a neighbour, a childhood sweetheart, they go to Church, they have pictures of Cristo de la Sed and the Virgen del Amor Hermoso on their walls and they train as – well - Virgin-bearers from one year to the next.
What is a costalero in English? The function is similar (though the attire is totally different) to that of a pall-bearer, but the coffin is replaced by a sea of candles and flowers topping a wobbling, four-poster-bed-like structure carrying figure of a Christ or a Virgin. I say ‘a’ because far from there being only one, there are lots! Oh, the paucity of being a Protestant………
This is a city of many types, all typical of here, all sharing the same lack of subtlety, the love of their religious ritual and bling or kitsch ( I mean no disrespect, it does somehow grow on even a Renegade Celt like me, though not to the extent of wanting to don a black comb the size of a sheet of A4 paper, an intricate black lace veil, and walk the streets at dirge pace holding a candle in the wind, following the beat of the funereal drums every Easter) – and their worship of the Feria, when all the women are beautiful, all the men dashing, suits and ties replace Reebok and company, tight-bodiced, swirling, tiered dresses with plunging backs, fringed shawls, floral hair decoration, garish earrings and perfect skin oust the Goddess Lycra. A whole city alive and celebrating its identity.
It may not have the melancholy, the poetry, the utter enchantment, depth and beauty of Granada, or be as compact and cute as Córdoba, it isn’t as elegantly decadent and full of laughter as Cadiz or as cosmopolitan as Malaga, but it’s where I live, and for all its love of kitsch and it sense of Self, its various tribal uniforms, its three religions – Catholicism, Sevilla FC and Betis – and its infinite number of velvet, gold and seed-pearl clad Virgins – it is, for now, home.
And it’s certainly a contrast to where I came from.